racism is taking a long time to die

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

Back in the 70s there lived a bigot called Arrie Paulus who stood on the mountain top to exclaim: Blacks are like baboons.

Given his mature age at the time, it is quite possible the neo-Nazi may have long gone to meet his Maker - or is ensconced in an old-age home somewhere, nursed by dutiful black Florence Nightingales.

In apartheid South Africa it was most likely Paulus's slur had earned him hero status among his peers as they exulted over their slugs of mampoer.

Now, aeons after Paulus comes a dinosaur, a species long thought to be extinct, in the form of a 45-year-old Meyerton farmer - Steynosarus - according to cartoonist Yalo.

Fourteen years into the new South Africa where the colour of one's skin does not, to paraphrase the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jnr, determine the content of one's character, Steynosarus still thinks he can badger a black woman at will.

Derick James Steyn's domestic employee, Thembi Ndlovu, has lived to tell the tale of the numerous assaults at the hands of this ignoramus.

And, according to earlier reports, having acquired a 357 Magnum revolver in October 1989 and a 12-bore shotgun a mere 14 days later, the Meyerton farmer also acted out his "Rambo-like" alter ego on defenceless farmworkers.

His litany of offences reads like charges of violence out of a bad movie, from reckless and negligent driving to assault, attempted murder and having a firearm licence endorsed.

It seemed like there was nothing to stop the small-town Rambo, a mistaken view as it turned out, largely fuelled by his friend, local magistrate Marius Serfontein, who kept looking the other way whenever Steyn appeared before him.

That was until this odd relationship was exposed by Sowetan. Now certain legal hawks want action to be taken against Steyn's favourite magistrate.

When 18-year-old Johan Nell nonchalantly strode into the Skierlik informal settlement in Swartruggens on January 14, some may argue, he was a mere victim of youthful exuberance.

But David Bruce, of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, believes the teenager was let down by the poor-white structure out of which he was raised.

"I don't see his acts as representative of all white people," says Bruce.

What possessed Nell to go with guns blazing riding into Skierlik, in Bruce's opinion, does not speak to the specific issue of turbulent race relations. When Nell drove away in the family bakkie, he left in his wake a trail of sorrow reminiscent of more bad movies - and four people dead and scores more injured.

Nell's unfounded fear, growing up in the backwaters of the North West, was that his family would be killed in an attack by blacks.

For his trouble, the youngster, who'd barely begun his life, got four life sentences and 68 years in jail in the Mafikeng high court a months ago.

Through all this, if Steyn had any access to newspapers, TV or radio news, he chose to ignore them, just as he turned a blind eye to the new country that had evolved before his jaundiced eyes.

While some may forgive Nell because of his youth, what would be Steyn's excuse? His environment, the way he was socialised?

The same Sowetan article that broke the story, showing him in all his idiotic insolence, also reported that the park in his hometown boasts a granite statue of apartheid's architect, HF Verwoerd.

If most blacks can get on with their lives after being constantly cajoled to "stop living in the past" each time they so much as try to blame their woes on apartheid - why is it possible for the likes of Steyn to remain trapped in a time warp?

We have moved too hastily from racism to reconciliation, says Sipho Seepe, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

"We're still in a racist society," Seepe says, "and what we see here are merely simmering expressions of the issues we failed to address."

Our past is so thorny we cannot simply address it by embracing on a sports field, Seepe says.

Undoing the apartheid psyche is going to need the same investment in resources as was necessary to entrench it. "It was infused through education, societal formations, attitudes and culture. We need the same tools to undo it," says Seepe.

Blacks were still victim to the thinking that white is good and the reverse, their own, bad. This will need serious work to dismantle. We tripped over ourselves in our haste to create a miracle society, the envy of the world.

Steyn's outlook brings to mind memories of the "Witwolf", Barend Hendrik Strydom who, in one summer of madness in 1988 shot dead seven black people, wounding 15 more in Strijdom Square in Pretoria.

Saved from the gallows, he was freed a few years later in a prisoner swap deal that included the likes of Robert McBride on the freedom fighters' side.

Strydom was only 23 years old then, a full two years Steyn's junior!

Despite the horror of his deed, the Witwolf was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the first democratic elections in 1994.

Just eight years ago, a white man, Jan Gabriel De Wet Kritzinger, got into a Pretoria bus and mowed down three black commuters.


"Black people are not my fellow men," he told the judge in the Pretoria high court.

For this Klu Klux Klan-inspired thinking, Kritzinger was handed down three life sentences and "also received 10 years each for the attempted murders of four other black commuters on the Pretoria city bus in January 2000".

Could Strydom "walking" have convinced those like Steyn that crimes by white supremacists would always be treated with kid gloves?

Ndlovu, the woman who was forced to help Steyn's mother perform her ablutions, may not have died but that does not make Derick James Steyn an angel.

One man who's certainly not an angel is Mark Scott-Crossley. His victim, Nelson Chisale, died chillingly as he was mauled by a lion when he was thrown into its enclosure at the Mokwalo White Lion Breeding Project in Limpopo.

What is even sadder - and spurs people like Steyn to ill-treat blacks with impunity, is that Scott-Crossley is now a free man - a mere four years after the gruesome death of Chisale.

Who can then blame Steyn for thinking he's untouchable?